This is an end-piece to my autobiography, but it contains all sort sof useful material for anyone writing either an autobiography or a biography. I have placed this essay under ‘creative writing’ because it is (a) a good example of personal/creative writing and (b) it could be useful to all sorts of people writing on all sorts of topics.
ADDENDUM OR EPILOGUE
Having completed my autobiography or, at least, completed a fifth edition in a form that is satisfactory to me in the first two volumes and keeping in mind that I will in all likelihood make additions to it in the years ahead, I want to write a sort of addendum or epilogue in the pages which follow. I write in part because I want to contribute to the world and audiences read my work in the hope, among other reasons, of finding a new perspective. Therefore, one of my aims is to try and make my perspective newstake out a territory that requires my voice. I feel I have done this in the territory of the Bahai Faith and autobiography.
I may find that, inspite of the best intentions, inspite of my own perception of the quality of this work and the pleasure I take in reading it, my work may not engage the readers in the Bahai community as much as Id like to see happen. I think engagement entails defining a common enterprise that newcomers and community veterans can pursue as they try to develop their interpersonal relationships. I think I do this quite well.But as readers continue in their interacting trajectories in the community and as they continue to shape their identities in relation to one another, they may not find this book that useful. While engagement can be positive, a lack of mutuality in the course of engagement with this book can create relations of marginality, mine and others, that can reach deeply into peoples identities. Im really not sure how successful I have been in the enterprise of truly engaging my readers. Of course, time will tell, but I must admit to my suspicions which may be mainly a function of age.
I like to see imagination, which is a process of expanding the self by transcending time and space and creating new images of the world and the self, as something which entails others locating their sense of engagement in a broader system and defining a personal trajectory that connects what they are doing to an extended personal identity of themselves. Id like to think this autobiography extends the meaning of artifacts, people and actions within the personal spheres of peoples lives, people who read this book. That is what Id like but, again, Im not so sure that I have succeeded in this respect. The sheer proliferation of the objects, diversions, and possibilities for, life in modern society has made modern society, as Walter Lippmann pointed out after WW1 in his book The Phantom Public, not visible to anybody, nor intelligible continuously and as a whole. Abundance has in some ways blunted not only the meaning of experience but also the pleasure to be found in abundance itself.
In spite of these complexities and enigmas, the past, my past, has occurred. It has gone and can only be brought back again by this autobiographer or by historians and social scientists working in very different media: in books, articles, documentaries, inter alia. The actual events, of course, can not be brought back. The past has gone and history is what historians make of it and autobiographers when they go to work. In Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins describes history as a discourse that is about, but categorically different from, the past.And so it is that my autobiography is categorically different from my past.
As the distinguished historian E.H. Carr put it: facts of the past exist independently of the mind of the historian, but historical facts are only those data selected from the past that a historian finds relevant to his or her argument. The historian can never know the past as it really was, but only how it might have been, since our information about the past is partial and inevitably mediated.It seems to me this is true, a fortiori, of the autobiographer. Neither I nor the historian enjoys the scientists luxury of being able to conduct and replicate experiments about the past, my past, under controlled conditions. I can test one theory about my life against another theory, as can the historian about some aspect of history. This allows me, as autobiographer, and historians, to develop theories that are more viable. But we can never establish the truthfulness, the validity, of that theory. History and autobiography are both attempts to explain our experience of the present by constructing a viable account of the past, such that if it had taken place then the present we live in would be the case. History is not an attempt to account for the way things were, but to account for the way things are.
When I say that my life has been full of joy and sorrow I eliminate this apparent contradiction or, indeed, any such contradiction, by analysing my life and dividing it into the joyous parts and sorrowful parts. This I have done by discussing these aspects, but I have not precisely quantified these two emotions. My life has been joyous in some respects and sorrowful in others. If, however, life is left whole and is not analysed in respect to these emotions, a myriad of contradictions is often left because that is the nature of the reality in which we live.
While imagination can lead to a positive mode of belonging, it can also result in disconnectedness and greater ineffectiveness; it can be so removed from any lived form of life and activity, membership and meaning, that it detaches the identities of readers and leaves them in a state of uprootedness. Readers can lose touch with their sense of social efficacy by which their experience of the world can be interpreted as competence. While that is not my desire, my autobiography may in the end be just a slippery slope in the direction of discontent and disorientation. Good intentions, as they say, are often the road to greater problems. As a teacher of literature, of English and the social sciences, I know only too well that many students turn off some of the best writers. I, too, am not immune from this experience. In the end, of course, one writes and sends ones efforts out into the universe and takes what comes.
Alignment is a term applied to writing and to autobiography. It entails negotiating perspectives, finding common ground, defining broad visions and aspirations, walking boundaries and reconciling diverging fields of interest. Alignment requires shareable frameworks and paradigms, boundary items and concepts that help to create fixed points around which to coordinate activities, an oeuvre, a life. It can also require the creation and adoption of broader discourses that help give a literary enterprise some life, some vitality and meaning and by which the microcosm of local actions can be interpreted as fitting within a broader framework. However, alignment can be a violation of a persons sense of self that crushes their identity. In some ways, at least for me, alignment is “the pen’s obedience to a line already traced in the mind, if not on the page.
To fully participate in community life in the sense that is at the heart of this autobiography each Bahai must find ways to engage in the work, the enterprize in their won individual way. They will do some things that others do, that other community members do, but they must be able to imagine their own work as being an important part of a larger enterprise. And they must be comfortable that the larger enterprise and its smaller components, the many conventions of that community, are compatible with the identities they envision for themselves. Being a part of the community, then, is not simply a matter of learning new skills, new attitudes and new values, but also of fielding new calls for identity construction. This understanding of identity suggests that people enact and negotiate identities in the world over time. For identity is dynamic and it is something that is presented and re-presented, constructed and reconstructed in interaction.
The individual experience of power derives from belonging, but it also derives from exercising control over what they belong to, what they participate in, what they read, indeed, an entire panoply and pageantry of activity. Each individual is heterogeneously made up of various competing discourses, conflicted and often contradictory scripts. Their consciousness is anything but unified. I emphasize this because in the great wealth of literature now available to the Bahai community both in-house literature and the burgeoning material now available in the marketplace, my book occupies a small place, possesses no particular authority and competes with a print and electronic media industry.
In order to survive and do well in most of the print and electronic media a writer must develop the ability to put things simply and effectively, in a manner that everyone can understand. Such a writer has maybe a minute and a half to two minutes if ones talking TV to explain a complex subject or a series of short verbal expositions if its an interview; even a book, if it is to find a large readership in the mass circulation market, must be as simple as possible. If you think that cant be done, youre wrong. However, so many academics and intellectuals are steeped in academic jargon that they cant pull it off. I hope this book is not an example of the latter, of someone who could not pull it off. Im afraid simplicity and brevity are not marks of my literary style. So, perhaps, I fail here.
I knew of a senior academic who was asked to appear on a local TV station. She showed up with six or seven books and they had little pieces of paper stuck in the books for purposes of quotation. The whole interview was over in less than two minutes; she never read any of her quotations and she was frustrated that she just couldnt make her points. She didnt understand that if youre going to play in the media ballpark, you have to play by their rules, not your own. I like to think that this book, this autobiography, has allowed me to have my six books and their quotations and that the role of this book does not include a two minute TV summary or an interview of ten minutes on an arts program. On the other hand, I could probably write a ten second autobiographical-ad grab, summarize what Im all about in one or two minutes and be interviewed for any appropriate length of time. Maybe it will ever happen before I die.
There are many different kinds of self-referential writing. I have incorporated some of them in what is for me a surprisingly large work invoking Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes, as an appropriate presiding spirit for the genre. Whatever largeness I claim to possess, it is the same largeness we all possess in relation to ourselves. We all must live in our own skins for all our days and the sense of our largeness–or our smallness for that matter–is a result of our bodily manifestation, our physical proximity to self. In the multitude of methods and genres of studies of Bahai history and experience, teachings and organization, autobiography is either tentatively acknowledged, invoked by negation or simply passed over in silence. It is one genre that is, for the most part, conspicuous by its absence from any bibliography. This has begun to change in the last decade or two. This piece of writing is part of that change.
So often we commiserate over the lack of history writing or, as Momen puts it, how lamentably neglectful in gathering materials for the history of the Bahai Faith we have been. History writing and the transmission of the narrative of a group has often been a problem. It wasn’t until the 1850’s, writes Russell Shorto in his review of Nathaniel Philbricks Mayflower that William Bradford’s narrative of the founding of Plymouth in 1620 was finally published. Only then, after 230 years, did the story of the first years of the history of the USA enter the historical record. While Momen may be right, there are many ways to look at the gathering of historical documents. Just how this autobiography will appear in the grand scheme of things only time, only history, will tell. This autobiography comes from the historical experience within four epochs in the first century of the Formative Age.
While my work makes no attempt, no pretense, to being a history of the period, it does attempt to express the experience of one man. How relevant this will be for future generations I leave to those mysterious dispensations of Providence which I often refer to in this now lengthy book. The details of my experience in this new Faith and the details associated with its origins and development in the various Bahai communities I lived in or was associated with in a broad sense could be said, if one wanted to be critical, to represent ‘intentional history,’ a form of social memory which establishes both the image of the past that the community wishes to transmit and its resulting corporate identity. And I suppose it is difficult to avoid this problem, this tendency, entirely. No matter how frustrating my experience has beenand there is no question that I have suffered as so many have done because of the Baha’ community—I love this community and a bias toward it is unavoidable. I have gone a long way toward my goal of presenting this community as honestly and accurately as I can, or so it seems to me.
The mechanics of constructing the past, my past, my real historical memories and contemporary, homoeostatic dynamics of the Bahai community are closely intertwined in the formation and ongoing formation of the metanarrative that is Bahai history. This is inevitable. For historys first historian, Herodotus, there were no official versions. What mattered to this Greek historian was the local nature of his information, in all its complexity. Some local, some polis idea of its past was a shared possession, rooted in cult and a complex ongoing tradition.For me, on the other hand, there is an official, a written history and it is this history which matters. What also matters, although in quite a different sense, is the local, complex, ongoing, nature of my information, the personal, the complex, the individual, the local, story. Much of my poetry in this autobiography has a similar emphasis to Homer’s and the poetry of many another poet in the sense that it is about: “the poetry of the past.”I use poetry to help me navigate the labyrinth of personal connections, -isms, and the historical nexuses which often seem too complicated for me to find my way through. I hope readers find here a lucidity that helps them cope with the complexity.
To make one more comparison between the experience of the Bahais and the founding fathers of America in 1620 Id like to quote what Philbrick says about these founders, namely, that they “began to see that they were traversing a mythic land, where a sense of community extended far into the distant past.” It took time for them to appreciate the significance of the Indian religious tradition. Relations with the Indians were the axis, says Philbrick, for a history of the Pilgrims. In time the Pilgrim colony became caught up in massacre and sadness; one could reasonably conclude that this underscores the danger of believing that God guides one’s hand.
I used to think the relationship with indigenous peoples was the critical axis of the Bahai community in our time. That was one of the main ideological reasons for going to live, first among the Inuit and then among the Aboriginals. But as time, as my life, has moved on, I am more of the view that a critical axis is the power of understanding. There are other axes, too, but this subject is too long for an exposition on the relevant themes here. For the Bahais, during the four epochs that was the temporal framework for my experience and that of my community, they too faced crises, as great or greater than those faced by the American Pilgrims. They were crises that threatened to arrest the communitys unfoldment from time to time and, as Shoghi Effendi once said threatened to blast all the hopes which its progress had engendered.
“There’s something terribly feminine about novel writing, John Fowles once wrote. When you create characters, he went on, all processes are analogous to childbirth, including postnatal depression. When a book is reviewed, it is like the weaning of children. You’re kicked about or even praised–and the book is separated from you. At a conscious level, this may be painful. But at an unconscious level, this leaves one free–to write another novel.What Fowles says here about novels has been partly true of my experience of writing this autobiography. The main difference is that this book is still connected to me by a literary umbilical chord. I will go on working on it for some time to come: until Im tired of it or I die.
Fowles goes on to say something which I think is also true of writing autobiography, at least–partly–for me. He says: “The novel is an impossible voyage. It’s a mystery why you keep doing it.” He asked, “Why is an unhappy ending considered more artistic than a happy ending?” and then answered himself, “In some ways the unhappy ending pleases the novelist. He has set out on a voyage and announced, I have failed and must set out again. If you create a happy ending, there is a somewhat false sense of having solved life’s problems.”For me, the question of endings has not come in to this autobiography. Obviously, I am still alive and could be here for another 30 or 40 years. My story, my autobiography could be only half or two-thirds over. And happiness, for me, has no relationship with the glitter and tinsel of an affluent society or the superficial adjustments to the modern world envisioned by humanitarian movements or publicly proclaimed as the policy of enlightened statesmanship. Happiness is much more of a paradoxical thing, a conundrum, a galimaufery-to chose a name from a Bah’ folk group–a mixture of unlike things.I have set out many times on this autobiographical journey. It is a mysterious journey, an impossible one in some ways.This journey could be divided into three aspects: the spatial, the temporal and the intellectual. I divide and mix the three for the sake of convenience. The three are textually interconnected. The temporal journey meshes with the experience of space to shape the protagonist’sthats me–intellectual development.
Henri LeFebvre sees space as active, not a passive surface and has three components: perceived, conceived and lived space. Trying to keep the three points of the triad straight is not as important, at least for my argument, as is maintaining a sense of their interlocked relation. Lived, perceived, and conceived space folds into and spins across its several forms, working together to accomplish the production of spaces: place, space, landscape, and location as in–streets, homes, rooms, fields, buildings, people, inter alia, and become embodied with stories, memories, and all sorts of meanings. Although the world is indeed increasingly well connected, we must hold this in balance with the observation that most people live intensely local lives.This has been true for me throughout these epochs, although in the realm of thought I have been travelling all my pioneering life.
Cultural geography is concerned with those aspects of land and space, in both the micro and the macro sense, that shape people’s ideas about themselves, and give to their identities a characteristic expression. Landscape is really an all-embracing concept. It includes virtually everything around us and has manifest significance for everyone. This sub-section of geography, the cultural sphere, formulates the complex strategies of identification that function in the name of a people and a nation. It is here that the recollection, the sense, of home and belonging are constructed and create an imagined and/or a real community. There results from this study of land and space a collectiveness that is addressed in different ways by different peoples, that is part of their identity and that structures belonging. I have mentioned this from time to time in this autobiography, but it has not occupied much of my attention. This is probably due to the many places I have lived rather than one which has helped to form my identity.
This whole question of the sense of identity has been part and parcel of the western literary tradition going right back to Homer and the Old Testament writers. Early poetry of the eighth century BCE, Hesiod, Homer and the tradition they belonged to, has as a major theme the identity of Greek people, whether united in a military expedition as in the Iliad or as a geographical system in the Catalogue of Ships.My poetry and my autobiography is concerned, too, with the notion of identity, the identity of the Bahai community and my own identity both within that community and without. It is this aspect of my identity that I give more of my attention to in this work.
The decision to pioneer internationally in 1971, to go abroad as we used to say, a decision I made with my first wife or, more honestly, because of my first wife, after graduating from college in 1967 and teaching for three years, represented an embrace of the challenges and pleasures of the unfamiliar. This reorientation was also a form of disorientation, for the new that floods in from all sides pulls old assumptions off their moorings. Just as a compelling theory may force students to fall back on what they know, only to find that the theory has changed the way in which they consider this knowledge, so the experience of living on a foreign continent makes one both look homeward and realize that home will never be the same.
The lesson I have learned during my 35 years as an expatriate is perhaps best described as a semantic one: home, Canada, and North America ceased forever to be synonyms in my mind. Even if home still lies over there, certain signs of it greet the eyes of Canadians abroad no matter where we go. Unlike the USA which, more than any other country, extends beyond its borders with its extensive global permutations and permeations reshaping foreign economic, political, and social, not to mention imaginative landscapesall in the image of America, Canada remains snowlocked in a bleak and lonely landscape and, even in our more media-saturated world, the country still lies somewhat remote and isolated, clean and distant.
The Canadian or the American abroad–and certainly me in Australia–sees that the foreign landscapes where he dwells are no mere mirror images of home. Some landscapes are, of course, familiar in some ways, and some are not. In a globalizing world the experience of fusing our experiences of contemporary reality with the dreams, fantasies, and satellite image-fed visions of everyone and everything from the original European colonizers in our homeland, to a set of explorers like Lewis and Clark or Cartier and Cabot, to Somali refugees, to the likes of al-Qaeda—ideas that traditionally resisted borders—in this era of mass communication, has virtually eliminated them. To put this a little differently: the world is but one country.
Canada became, particularly in this global age, something that was neither simply a place, nor as a permanent set of values, beliefs, attitudes, or philosophies. It was, it became, an idea, one that was fluid and open to constant change and not defined by traditional constraints like geography, politics, and nationality. My personal experience, however, showed me that thinking of Canada in these terms as I did, was neither simple nor easy. It was easier said than done and, if done as I had done now for over 30 years, it was not easy to put into words. This was true not only of my Canadianness but of my pioneeringness and much else.
“The art of autobiography has many facets. One of the critical facets is omission. One’s own forgetfulness is very important. Indeed, as I have pointed out elsewhere. Most of my life is simply not here. It has been omitted in the interest of interest. As in the daily round one can only bring to memory a certain portion of ones experience, otherwise one would literally drown in data, in memories, in a chaos of facticity. As the world passed through the golden age of astronomy during these epochs, as it advanced through a range of new technologies from the computer to satellite, from radio to TV, video to DVD, inter alia, as it doubled its population from 3 to 6 billion, so much was invented and developed, so much impacted on man and society-but I have omitted the discussion of these and so many other facets of the industrial and commercial developments of our time.
Claude Simon, in his lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985, said, I find that what one writes or describes is never something which has happened prior to the work of writing. On the contrary the writing produces something in every sense of the term in the course of working. The writing, Simon argues, produces something within its own present. I find this to be my own experience as well. This work has returned unremittingly to decisive and not so decisive events in my life.I have created a seam of light, of gold, of joy, that has had its source, its origins in the Bahai Faith. With fire my gold has been tested and lifes gold in its many forms has tested this servant again and again. Many of lifes tests I did not pass. But like a close cricket series, I wont know the score or, indeed, if I won, until the last ball is played. Indeed, Im not so sure the cricket metaphor about winning even applies here because so often in life the first shall be last and the last first. The act of writing for me is more of an effort of understanding. My aim is to be clear and evocative for in this way I feel more in touch with my subject.
After my years of early childhood, I enjoyed life as a student for some twenty years; for many years I enjoyed teaching, perhaps as many as thirty. I dont think I was a natural teacher, but I grew into it. After several years I became successful; I became a person enjoyed by my students and enjoying them. I loved to explain things and rarely made a questioner feel stupid for asking. Although I had broad intellectual interests, my pursuit of career and my involvement in the Bahai Faith left little time for other activities: I did not play golf or follow sports after the age of 21; I did not take up painting or cooking or photography or anything one could call a hobby, although I did collect stamps in my teens; I watched little TV, had no TV from 1956 to 1976, although after I retired I watched over two hours a day; I rarely went to movies, to various forms of entertainment or ate out.I did sing a little and played the guitar; I joined the Bahai Faith with its world of meetings and outings and I went for a daily walk of about half an hour among a host of other domestic, familial and social activities that are part of the lives of fathers and husbands in the west.
I think it highly unlikely that aspects of my life would become legendary as did the lives of many a celebrity in my time. No series of iconographic images evoked from fact and fiction would ever produce a celluloid dream as had been produced for many a culture hero of these four epochs. There would be no fantastical caricature of my life with its inevitable exaggerations, bright colours and haunting themes and images created for the world of cinema. Mementos and mis-remembering, pride and prejudices, would never be mixed together and served up as legend to hungry fans in this or ensuing centuries. Every year hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors would never flock to some of the locales where I have lived. No one would ever have to locate or re-locate my legend in some tangled interweaving of history, myth and memories. For the millions and billions of people in this and future centuries whose names, whose lives and memories would be excluded from history, would not be pulled into some timeless world of myth and dream, legend and narrative associated with the places I have lived, my places of memory and my lifes experiences.
More generally, will a myth of our time be created, as is so often the case with any and every age,a myth with its myriad of elements, with its enormous disparity between conception and reality? Will that myth spawn an immense literature as is happening to all the ages of the past? The concern of a future time will not be with the reality of our time, the time of these four epochs, but with what people have thought and felt about that reality. This thinking, feeling and remembering will undoubtedly contribute to the myth. Myth is the stuff of the history of sensibility. One critic of contemporary Hollywood myth expressed the view that If you can find the myth, it hasn’t been hidden properly, and if it’s been hidden properly, you can’t find it for sure.My life which has been so much wrapped up with the Bahai myth and I think I have hidden it in this long work. I have hidden it so well that the average reader will have little idea of what it is. There is some truth in this cryptic comment of this Hollywood critic.
After countless debates and exhaustive deconstructions about my time and my age which are sure to take place in the future, it will be hard to tell what is left. A lot of talking tends to produce this experience of intellectual exhaustion. Certain images will endure for some people and define the age, the time. That imagery may be contested, may be transcendent, may be bewildering, unbending, and even beguiling. For others it will be text, print, that defines an age, a time, a person, a problemnot images. For still others it will be a combination and still others no images and no text will define the item of concern because the subject at issue will not concern them in the slightest. We cant all be concerned about the same stuff. The peculiar and compelling image, the subtle and complex text, will prod a future age to re-examine the fascinating crossroads of myth and memory. They will beckon a revisiting, yet again, of another day.
My second wife often complained, although grew to accept, that I devoted insufficient time to my marriage and to shared activity together. In my retirement this changed a littlefor the positiveas we came to spend three or four hours together every day. It is perhaps a matter of personal taste whether one attributes my drive first as a student, then as a teacher and finally as a writer and as a Bahai to personal ego or a genuine commitment to my various roles, roles to learn, to educate and inspire people about learning and to serve the Cause and my writing. Undoubtedly there were elements of all these motivations present at different stages of the life-span. Retirement also brought a greater element of control over my life. Parents, teachers, employers and students had a great deal to say about my life until about the age of sixty. Then the only person I had to please to any significant extent was my wife and, by the age of sixty, I had that worked out, if not entirely to her satisfaction, at least enough to provide the basis for a household harmony and tranquillity so that I could get on with what had become the passion of my lifewriting.
I once thought that autobiography meant being able to write without artifice, but Id like to think any thoughtful observer of this writer will see a certain cunning, game, play, everywhere. That is what Id like to think. The geography of my book circles and doubles with long footnotes to take the spread of thought. Why footnotes? As Martin Amis writes in his autobiography: “To preserve the collateral thought. In fact, the whole thing is a lattice of collateral. Like Amis, too, I must confess to having compiled this work with one eye on a remote and exacting audience: posterity. And if not the whole eye, then part of the eye, perhaps the retina or the aqueous humour or the eye brows. But at least the job got done before the body gave way, as the philosopher Paul Feyerbands did. He became paralyzed and had to finish his autobiography from an unfortunate bed-ridden state. Other writers become paralysed with the thought of using the first person: a serious dilemma for an autobiographer.I, too, was reticent to use the first person for the first two decades as I toyed initially with this autobiography. But eventually I found a voice, a voice I was comfortable with. I also found a format that attempted to create what I think is a happy balance between aphoristic nuggets and sustained analysis. I leave it to readers to assess whether I achieved this balance.
The profession of writer has acquired something of the ancient professions of travelling salesman and repertory actor. As I gaze back over the half a century(1949-1999) before I took up writing full time I feel as if I acquired or took part in these ancient professions through my several roles of student, teacher, Bah’ pioneer and a multitude of geographic, status, career, employment, community and marital situations. Full time writers are often engaged in an endless succession of book festivals and literary conferences which take them round the globe, all of which adds to an air of unreality, with books alone being the hub around which their existence revolves. I, too, went around the globe, or at least from one end in the north to the other end in the south, with books being a critical hub of my life. If I experienced any unreality it was due to a range of factors but attending literary conferences and book festivals was not among those factors. From time to time and partly due to my bi-polar disability I experienced that unspeakable penalty or affliction in which I felt that my whole being had been exerted toward accomplishing nothing.But, insensibly and as the decades wore on, I knew that this feeling, when and if it arose, was transient and in a few hours at most it would disappear.
As my early sixties advanced from year to year I withdrew increasingly, almost entirely, from the society of those about me and gave myself up to a wondrous study of writing and reading. In many ways, my reading in the first six decades of my life was far from as deep as I would have liked it to be but there was so much else going on in my life that I was unable to achieve the depth that I wanted. With the early years of late adulthood I have been able to both read and write more, much more, at last to my satisfaction. I am conscious of William Hazlitts cautionary note that often, if one reads more, one thinks less. Perhaps that notion just provided me with an easy way to excuse myself. I find that concentrated and extensive reading seems to come second to writing and the innumerable odds-and-ends of life. It is true for me, as it was for Hazlitt, that I try most earnestly to cultivate the habit of thinking, and detested nothing so much as servile imitation, affectation and their loathsome odour.I wish to think and feel for myself. If I have not drunk deep, hopefully I have at least been an expert taster who makes serendipitous connections.
This reading and writing does not take place in a vaccuum. I continue my role of activist, but I play the role differently than I did in the first forty years of my adult life. As someone who surmounted the educational hurdles that kept previous generations in my family solidly working class, I became a credentialed worker, a professional who experienced considerable autonomy and intrinsic worker satisfaction from the 1960s to the 1990s. And now that paid-labour of the day does not occupy me as it did for decades, nor does raising a family, nor going to meetings and engaging so frequently in social and community activities, I can write and place the products of my efforts in thousands of internet sites with literally millions of my words. Although a critical observer might see and say that I was simply blowing my own horn, I was blowing the Bahai horn, so to speak. This occupied me virtually all my waking hours.
There were many who blew the horn that I blew, albeit differently shaped, different sizes and styles, but many ordinary people and many thinkers and intellectuals, writers and social scientists blew many of the tunes I was trying to blow both in my autobiography and in other works. Fernand Braudel, for example, of the French annales school, recognised the justice of the sociologist Raymond Aron’s observation that ‘the phase of civilisations is coming to an end, and for good or ill humanity is embarking on a new phase.’That phase is one of a single civilisation which could become universal. I dont want to list and comment, quote and analyse, all those who share this global, one world perspective. Suffice it to say, it was a horn which as the epochs advanced was blown by more and more serious students of historys longue duree. Some of these students had a grand interpretation of history, a meganarrative, along the lines pursued by Oswald Spengler, H. G. Wells or Arnold Toynbee. And some did not. Much of the discussion remains nebulous and unsatisfactory. The story, the blowing, is far from over.
My years of worrying about the success of my three children and whether they too would enjoy the benefits of education in their professional lives that I enjoyed; whether they were happy in their single or married lives and whether my step-grandchildren were winning their races or successful at school, were for the most part over by the time I entered my early sixties. My wife tended to take care of the worry department in these areas and she did a better job of providing care, therapy and advice when needed. The messages of conformity and obedience, of working hard to achieve occupational achievement and self-satisfaction, seemed to be more of a pattern in my childrens lives and the lives of my grandchildren for that matter, than it was in mine forty years before. Although all was not smooth in their lives, they did not give me much to worry about as they went on with their lives as busy as beavers. This subject could occupy many more pages and perhaps it will in some future revised edition of this autobiography.
I should add here, parenthetically, that I, too, worked hard. Perhaps such a remark goes without saying; perhaps my inner drive was due partly to my insecurities and my knowing that my achievements never came easily for me. Perhaps my relentless pursuit of the high goals I set myself was part of my bi-polar disorder. Perhaps the origins of my ambitious tendency were to be found in my early childhood and my relationships with hard working parents and conscientious family in general. Perhaps a detailed explanation of the Price and Cornfield family fortunes over time, over previous generations might uncover some explanation for the ardour and effort that characterized my life. The foundation of the two family-trees, Price and Cornfield, going back centuries is virtually unknown to me. In the last quarter of the 19th century, though, each family occupied the upper regions of the lower class or the lower regions of the middle class.The recounting of the ups and downs of the generations in these two families, generations I have known something about, is beyond the scope of my knowledge and the purposes of this autobiography. The canvas I paint is broad but it is, for the most part, rooted in subjects I know a good deal about. Readers will find some discussion of my family tree in this autobiography but, on the whole, very little outside those members I actually met and got to know well.
History, wrote the historian R.G. Collingwood, is the science of res gestae and res gestae are the actions of human beings, actions that have been done in the past. The first time in the western tradition that we come across this term res gentae is with the emperor Augustus in 14 AD. It is inscribed on his mausoleum. It is a memorial of his achievements. It is a type of official, abbreviated autobiography.
Autobiography, then, to follow Collingwoods lead, are my own actions in the past. History, Collingwood went on, is for human self-knowledge. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.All history is the history of thought, Collingwood continues, in so far as human actions are mere events, the historian cannot understand them; strictly, he cannot even ascertain that they have happened. They are only knowable to him as the outward expression of inward thoughts.All this is certainly true, a fortiori, of autobiography.
The history of my thought and action is the re-enactment of that past thought and action in my own mind.My autobiography is a continuous process of interaction between myself and the facts of my life, an unending dialogue between my present and my past. I am, in the words of another historian E.H. Carr, just another dim figure trudging along, but the point at which I find myself in this trudging procession determines my angle of vision and just how dim or how sharp that vision is over the past. In addition, as autobiographer, I am not dredging up everything only what I see as relevant. A good many people simply want to know about the past, my past and my view of things for the emotional or intellectual satisfaction I provide.
The extent to which an autobiographer fulfils the useful social function of helping people know something better, to that extent does he contribute to the complex of non-practical activities which make up the culture of a society. When and if I stimulate and satisfy the imagination of my readers, I do not differ essentially from the poet or artist. There is an emotional satisfaction of a high order to be gained from extending the comprehending intelligence of people to include elements of the past. Like all rational activities, the study, the reading, of a well written autobiography, an autonomous enterprise and activity in itself, can contribute to the improvement of man. It does so by seeking the truth within the confines of its particular province and that province is the rational reconstruction of the past.
I do not want to dwell excessively on the middle class psychology, either in its individual or collective expression, that played in the centre and at the fringes of my life as an adult since the mid-sixties. Nor do I want to place here a political analysis, an analysis that took society from a politics of the left in the sixties and seventies and then to the right in the following twenty years.Even though my adult life was lived with this psychological and political background, I feel I have alluded to these themes enough in the previous mountain of words. I have drawn here on one of the better analyses of my culture and my class, my status group and its values and beliefs, an analysis that was first published in 1989, just as I was about to complete my last decade of professional employment as a teacher.
Like Gustave Flaubert, the originator of the modern novel who spent much of his life in one house and a great deal of that time in one room I, too, spend much of my time now in a room in a house in the oldest town in Australia at the end of the Tamar River in northern Tasmania.Only the occasional Bahai activity, family interchange, conversation with a friend, daily interaction with my wife and the inevitable trips to town to shop, to put up posters and to go the library and attend to the several domestic activities that are part of life for everyman took me into the social domain.I had come to see life more as an affair of solitude diversified by company than an affair of company diversified by solitude. For fifty years(1954-2004) it had been the other way around. With early retirement the tables and the millennium had slowly been turning. As they turned I slowly approached the heartland of my story across the familiar slopes of my earthly life, its actions and thoughts. I tell it in a way which gives me an invigorating sense of briskness and phrase-relishing.As the epochs advanced I had an increasing and an insatiable spirit of activity. By the fifth epoch the spirit was channeled virtually in its entirety into a sedentary and literary life. In the process I defined my world. I hope readers enjoy my definition and the way I go about putting it together. Like Johnsons dictionary 250 years ago, it is an ambitious work. But whether it will influence generations as Johnsons work did, I can only hope. He wrote to escape the pain of life; I wrote to escape societys endless chat.
An autobiography, like a novel, stands between us and the hardening concept of statistical man. There is no other medium, said William Golding when he received his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983, in which we can live for so long and so intimately with a character. That is the service both an autobiography and a novel renders. Golding went on to say: It performs no less an act than the rescue and the preservation of the individuality and dignity of the single being, be it man, woman or child. No other art, I claim, can so thread in and out of a single mind and body–and so live another life. It does ensure that at the very least a human being shall be seen to be more than just one billionth of one billion.. And if the potential reader is not interested in what I have preserved here he need not read my work, need not pick it up. He is free to stop at any juncture.I hope the fact that this work is not just a humdrum inventory of personal recollections should encourage the disinclined reader. But neither is this work a series of casually scanned or, like Flauberts novels, savagely chosen details in a frozen gel of chosenness. “Pioneering Over Four Epochs is a portmanteau of personal history, the Bah’ Faith and endless opinionizing; it is a pinata of literary references and a galimaufery of stuff that I try to beat into shape with the stick in/of my brain–sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
The Cause is going to need pioneers for many generations to come. As I have been writing this lengthy statement of my pioneering experience I have often felt that my story is but one of the first to make it onto paper from the generations beginning in 1937. Some narratives, some genres, like westerns and gangster stories, are dead or are dieing out. The political agenda changes with the seasons, although some problems seem to be perennial. My father used to say there is always trouble in the Middle East. When the news came on and he was in his latter years, he would leave the room muttering about the endless warfare in Israel. That was in 1960. Nearly fifty years later the story is the same. And the historian AJP Taylor said it was wisest never to have an opinion about the Middle East. The pioneer, in its many forms, has a long life ahead of it and a long life behind it.
Since literature takes as its subject all human experience, and particularly the ordering, interpreting, and articulating of experience, it is no accident that the most varied literary projects find instruction in the great mass of literature and its history and that the results of these projects are relevant to thinking about literature.What is true for literature, is also true for the other arts, such as painting and film andautobiography.
The reader should also keep in mind as he reads this work that there is what autobiographers calls the interstitial selfthe self that emerges in lifes multitude of interstices, some in discourse, others in private. Sometimes this interstitial self emerges only for a moment to deal with and negotiate a conflict, a particular point in a relationship, indeed, many of lifes situations. Sometimes the person is unaware of some of his interstitial selves. He is drawn back into familiar territory where there is a more stable position, a more familiar self and his interstitial self disappears as fast as it came into being. At other times, this interstitial self is grasped as a way to escape the restrictive discourses that so often arise in social life. In addition to this interstitial self there is another conventional autobiographical term, the hybrid self. This is a self that can be seen as shifting among positions and discourses, sometimes combining them into a true hybrid. At other times I am very aware of the contradictions and contradictory situations in life and that I must maintain quite separate and independent discourses, languages, so to speak, of the self. Then there is the unfound self, a self that seems unfindable. It too me 19 years(1984-2003) to finally find a voice that spoke to me of me. Beginnings are often difficult for novelists and autobiographers. People think of writing for years and may, in the end, never pick up their pen. I shall say no more on what can be a complex subject of selves. But it is an important aspect for readers to consider as they delve into this autobiography.
Readers need to keep in mind G.K. Chestertons turn of phrase in his discussion of the future of Charles Dickens writings. Chesterton notes that there are a number of important factors which never prevent a man from being immortal. The chief of them, he adds, is the unquestionable fact that they write an enormous amount of bad work. This leads a man to being put below his place in his own time, but it does not affect his permanent place, to all appearance, at all. Shakespeare, for instance, and Wordsworth wrote not only an enormous amount of bad work, but an enormous amount of enormously bad work.Some of the feedback I have received in the three years since I finished the 3rd edition of this work would indicate that what I have written is just that, an enormously bad work. So, perhaps, my immortality is assured, at least if Chesterton is onto something here.
Chesterton goes on to say in his discussion of the future of Dickens writings that it is the very exaggeration of his characters that will immortalize him. The realistic narrators of their time are all forgotten, but the exaggerators live on. Chesterton sites the example of Homer and his characters in the Iliad and Odyssey. I might add the example of the Bab and Bahaullahs writings which to a western ear and the moderate tones of the stiff upper-lip of the English literary tradition, often seem exaggerated. My own work, sadly, aiming as it does for realism, factual detail and accuracy of circumstance, will probably pass through the wings of time and be no more substance than the eye of a dead ant as the Bab, or was it Bahaullah, wrote.
On the other hand, Chesterton did leave me with some hope for a place in posteritys literary home. Chesterton also felt that those writers with a poetic inclination had a greater future than those without. So, perhaps, in the end, my poetry will save a place for me in futures rooms amidst its lush or not-so-lush furnishings. Among these furnishings, perhaps on the walls, will be the carefully arranged portraits of my emotional credentials, my intellectual and psychological interests, indeed, a whole gallery of stuff.It is difficult to see what value all these gallery pieces will have but their association with a new Faith which claims to be the emerging religion on this planet will give them a significance I can scarcely appreciate at this early hour.
A person is not simply determined and dominated by the pressures of any overarching discourse or ideology such as the secular pluralism in which we as citizens of western democracies are immersed. We are all, I believe, the agents of our own personal discernment capable of identifying and interpreting societys dominant discourse in order to insert himself into it or confront and resist it. The dominant cultural forces within our world do not take away our free will–entirely. But just as Darwinism and the Civil War shattered the psyches of Americans living in the last 40 years of the nineteenth century and two great wars and the holocaust shattered those living in the first half of the twentieth century, we in the last half of that century and the early twenty-first have other shattering social and psychological experiences.
There cannot be any doubt at all that my own literary corpus can not be appreciated apart from the influences of my age. In an attempt to sketch the course of my literary endeavours it would be futile to detach their succession from the experiences of my personal life, largely determined, as these were, by the revolutionary changes of my time, by other changes in the condition of both Canada and Australia where I have lived, developments in the religion I have been associated with and in the various intellectual shifts and alterations in its centres and capitals around the world. The probing of ‘Canadianness’ or Australianness turns out to be a puzzling and somewhat brain-racking exercise in my pioneer situation. But all is not puzzle and probes for the brain. Much of the contemplation is enriching and interesting for the psyche.
The world I have grown up in, at least since Norman Vincent Peale wrote what was arguably the first self-help book, has grown accustomed to the standard victim-recovery cycle of modern self-help books. Part of pop-psychology one of the many substitutes for religion in my time, the self-help genre can not be found in the text of this book. Like Proust’s masterpiece, I like to think my work is edifying precisely because my struggle goes on and on and just changes its form as the years go on. Unlike Proust, I do get better from illnesses that dot my life. I may not get totally cured and the battle of life may change its form and content but I am never tempted to blame others for my problems.I do not welcome suffering, as Proust seems to do, as an opportunity for thinking up fresh ideas and for entering into a richer relationship with experience. But once it has come and gone I welcome the insights that come in its train.
I like to think too that, if self-help sneaks around the intellectual corner, I offer it in the form of a manual, a philosophical guide for the intelligent person. If self-help there be here I hope it is a welcome departure from the usual bellyaching. ”Our best chance of contentment,” Proust writes ”lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes and emotional betrayals. If we can also avoid the ingratitude of those who blame the peas, the bores, the time and the weather, then some degree of contentment may be ours.”Following the nine, the seven or the five steps may also help.
For some, especially writers, language itself is the primary arena within which these shattering experiences are coped with and individual assertivenss and agency becomes manifest from behind the angst.For them talk is more important than action, indeed talk itself is action because words determine thoughts and actions. “Language… is the parent, and not the child, of thought…. Men are the slaves of words.”This may have been true of the philosopher Kant whom posterity caricatured as a man “who was all thought and no life” or a man who neither had a life nor a history. Ive come to the view that thought and action, two of the major facets of our lives, can not be separated. The practical and the mystic have become one in our day.
My journey is not only the core and central thread of my life story; it is also the recurrent and most enduring principle of my life. Nowhere, throughout the narrative, will one encounter a complacently ensconced pioneer. I have been a migratory and volatile spirit which has sprung out of the most established and rooted position in a conservative Canadian consciousness. I have often been beaten down by circumstances, depressed by body chemistry and situations, called by that curious combination of sorrow and a strange desolation of hope into a quietness, but complacency has not been a quality I have battled withalthough I must say that complacency sounds restful after some of lifes other battles I have had to contend with.
My resistance to the dominant mores of my time has been articulated, made public, and critiqued in several textual identities of which this autobiography is one. The personal agency of my discernment, my autonomy, declares itself it seems to me in this very writing. This writing becomes the site and symbol of my resistance to the dominant ideology of my time and its major cultural manifestations. This resistance takes place with the aid of the great power of retrospect and hindsight and so gives to much of the messiness, order and shape to this work. In the end, though, much is messiness, for not all of thought is ordered, tidy and logically sequential.
If I give to my life artistic form and spiritual vision and design in retrospect; if I discover a more profound truth in the context of this vision than an unfertilized collection of facts could deliver, I understand that is part of a design-imposed, meaning-making, process that I give to my life. Perhaps a great deal of what has happened to me is fate, destiny, a certain predestination. Such was the view Henry James took of his life when he wrote his autobiography in the evening of his life. There is little doubt of the importance of fate from a Bahai perspective. I wish I could say in this context that my sentences had a quality of stunning exactitude, lyricism and comedy, an aphoristic concision but, alas, style is not a quality bestowed on me as it was on Flaubert. Perhaps this is because I have not been willing to work at it as obsessively as he.
I wish I could also say, too, that I possessed the kind of grand and exuberant personality that the great twentieth century literary critic William Empson is reputed to have possessed. Such a personality would have been handy in so many of the social situations in life. So much of life has been social. That refined, sophisticated, and erudite scholar with his great reckless energy for life, with his willingness to throw his entire self into the interpretation and criticism of literature, William Empson had an energy and passion that informed his critical work and served to renew in the common reader a sense that there is some literature that can matter deeply to all and any of us. Alas, although I shared Empsons energy it did not result in any literary erudition in my case; although, like Empson, I threw myself into my academic life in varying degrees with some success over half a century, I never made it to the major leagues. My destiny was to be a minor poet in the minor leagues. But I enjoyed playing poetic-ball in a small town in the minors. If you love playing ball part of you does not care where.
I was certainly not in the same league as Empson, arguably one of the three greatest literary critics in the last several hundred years; although we both had sexual proclivities, his desires seemed to result in greater notoriety than mine. I had certainly experienced shame, fear and guilt in relation to my sexual urges and activities, among other sources of shame. Fear of exposure was very real and, after my young adulthood, I was not able to share my concerns with anyone except my wife. These were battles I fought, for the most part, on my own. Being honest about my failures in the sexual domain seemed impossible outside my immediate marital relationship. There simply was not the context, the relationship for such a degree of intimacy or confessionalism.
But these feelings did not keep me away from God as they do many.My sense of unworthiness seemed instrumental in drawing me closer to God, to appreciating His forgiveness, something I was assured of over and over again by Bahaullah. I had right desire, but possessed wayward appetites, a sort of contagion of the lower self, part of an inward war made of thin but tough veils, battles which I often lost, susceptibilities of conscience which were simply not strong enough. I was not willing, or so it seemed, to burn the bridges across which certain sins continually came. In a world like this, in the darkest hours before the dawn, I was confident I had much company, company that ran into the millionsif not billions.
Alcohol was never a problem for me as it was for Empson. Comparisons with others, of course, are sometimes useful but, as the clich goes, comparisons are often odious. Autobiography’s ultimate purpose, Henry James felt, was to fix the self for all time, to put forth the idea that the autobiographer matters and that his life is significant in the supposed order of things.I certainly like to think my life matters, that it has meaning in the ultimate scheme of things, that in writing this autobiography I am not merely imposing form on chaos, that all that I think is not merely an exercise in subjectivity, that my life is not so deeply private as to be beyond scientific scrutiny, that it derives its importance from factors beyond that which is unsystematic, even chaotic, uncommunicable and emotional in life. The scientific domain contains an important element of subjectivity and total objectivity is always impossible. One of the key elements of science is that it exists in, indeed generates, a community, a framework, of interpretation. Indeed, the scientist can only function within such a community. That is also true, at least in some ways, for this autobiographer. The community in question for me is the Bahai community. And, more generally, the human community.
What makes my work scientific is that I am engaged in a conscious, explicit organization of knowledge and experience.I am not just engaged in making true statements. One can do this in any quiz or games like trivial pursuit. Proof, in scientific terms and in autobiography, means nothing more than the total process by which we render a statement more acceptable than its negation. An important caveat here is that the convictions I bring to this exercise, my feelings of certitude, indeed much that I might call tentative hypotheses for example, are part of a psychological state not part of my knowledge. Certitude can often be had with no knowledge at all and hypotheses are things anyone can make. Our emotions organize themselves around our convictions and become part of our way of life. This is ones faith, ones religion. And we all have a religion in this sense; there exists around this religion or faith a theoretical uncertainty and it exists for all of us. Such is some of the intellectual orientation, some of my foundation view, that I take to this autobiography. Nothing convinces an artist more of the arbitrariness of the means to which he resorts to attain a goal, to assert this autonomy, however permanent it may be, than the creative process itself, the process of composition. Verse really does, in Akhmatova’s words, grow from rubbish among other things. To express this same idea more elegantly, one could say that verse grows out of slime the same way as a lotus flower. The roots of prose are no more honorable. But there in the roots can also be found faith and thought the lotus flowers embryo. Without faith and thought no society can long endure and without a common humanity and a practical basis for world order appalling catastrophe threatens to engulf humanity.
As this autobiography has come to take form increasingly since I began writing it over twenty years ago, I have felt a measure of literary and psychological power and humility.Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that self-narrative is a tool used to gain self-determinacy.This work is also partly an illness narrative, partly a salvation narrative, partly a travel narrative, as autobiographers often call these sub-genres, and partly an act of becoming and re-becoming. Through self-narration I partly re-make myself, re-fashion and re-invent a new understanding of myself. With this story I try to resist the several disabling definitions that could label my life and so to write myself into/with a rhetorical normalcy. Narrative is used as a tool, a technology, that is intended to be a vehicle to freedom, self-definition, and self-expression. Unlike some writers, I have no obsession with being taken seriously. What consumes many words of many writers in an attempt to be taken seriously, consumes little of mine. I have not set this work before the public with the confidence, still less the complacency, of an established master. This book be